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Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s

Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s
Kino Video
1921-1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / +/- 360 min. / Street Date August 2, 2005 / 29.95
Featuring short subjects by Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Germaine Dulac, Man Ray, Jean Epstein, Slavko Vorkapich & Robert Florey, Dimitri Kirsanoff, Joris Ivens, Hans Richter and others.
New music by Sue Harshe, Larry Marotta, Paul Mercer, Donald Sosin and (dp)3
From the film holdings of the Raymond Rohauer Collection
DVD Produced by Bret Wood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kino Video has come up with a really good idea: gather together a collection of experimental films, the kind we saw in snips and snatches in Film School while film professors tried to make us think that the entire world of cinema art would have collapsed without their 'seminal' influence.

Before top-level film study took to deconstructing film into Chomsky-like linguistic patterns, all that film schools had to teach were the roots of what made movies what they were. On one day we'd learn how D.W. Griffith invented everything from the close-up to parallel cutting, and on the next, there'd be a lecture extolling the massive influence of the 1920s art scene in Paris, the enclave of experiment that came up with Dada, surrealism and counterculture self-promotion.

I remember being shown only a few of these films, usually in ragged dupes of dupes of shadows perceived through a lens darkly. There's no guarantee that these movies were all shot by professionals in the first place (it is said that even Carl Dreyer discovered some of his visual effects through camera malfunction) but when it came time to write about them, Savant found himself taking the praise of some famous critics with a grain of salt. In film school, Ménilmontant was a fragment. Seen here in a halfway decent print backed by a sensitive modern score, it might resemble what was shown in Paris in 1925.

The films seen here are all from the Raymond Rohauer collection. Rohauer was an exhibitor and distributor of rarified art pix most famous for helping Buster Keaton preserve and reissue his classic silent comedies. When I first heard of him in the early 1970s, he was criticized as being too concerned with re-copyrighting his acquisitions in his own name, and speculation was that he had exploited Keaton. He had the habit of replacing silent intertitles with new ones bearing a Rohauer trademark. One gag film shown to great approval at Filmex in 1972 was an ersatz Rohauer copy of Fred Ott's Sneeze, an Edison film that lasts about four seconds. The parody surrounded the snippet with at least three minutes of redundant and insulting new scrolling titles, mostly proclaiming Rohauer's copyright and threatening legal action to pirates. It ended with the statement that Rohauer had successfully acquired the copyright on sprocket holes.

The anti-Rohauer sentiment was reportedly sparked by jealous competition, and the fact remains that he and Keaton remained solid friends after Rohauer's attentions revived the comedian's career. Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s is a two-disc collection of artsy short subjects from the Rohauer collection that includes many of the famous titles written up in the classic literature on early cinema societies, art circles and cinema societies, etc. Many of the films here are one-shots by film theorists, but artists like Man Ray attacked the form seriously whenever the money could be found to make a film. Even the cubist Fernand Léger got into the act.

The Studio des Ursulines in Paris keeps popping up in Elliott Stein's film notes, agreeably designed to be read before seeing the individual films. In film school we often received the mistaken notion that these movies were seen everywhere by everybody, which couldn't be farther from the truth. The Studio des Ursulines was one small theater that apparently catered to this kind of picture, sort of the 1920's equivalent of the 'college town' movie house except in this case the clintele included members of the avant-garde art community - painters, critics, musicians, theorists. Here's where the surrealists hung out, thinking up new ways to get their 'culture shock' work into larger public view. Eventually the winners were Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali with their Un Chien Andalou; a really notorious title might enjoy the privilege of being attached to a major art-film release in a wide distribution pattern.

Putting all these experimental eggs in one basket encourages comparison and categorization. Some still seem to be originals, such as the earlier films by Man Ray. A few, like Ménilmontant play like conventional narrative films conceived in an alternate dimension. Many simply call themselves 'poetic cinema' or 'cinema symphonies' and appear intended to reduce the film image to its basics of light and motion. Pleasant as some of them might be, it is difficult to separate Sergei Eisenstein's assemblage of shots of crashing surf from those filmed by Jean Epstein or anyone else. Pictures of trees and flowing water in any form are also potent magnets for experimental filmmakers. Seen as a group, these 'classic' pictures strongly resemble film student work: Without great resources, a student just wanders out-of-doors with his camera and shoots the first thing that strikes his eye. Many 'experimental' montages seen here are really bits of static images thrown together, as in a photo album.

We're also struck by the inevitable mark of money in these pictures. Man Ray found a way of eliminating the entire filmmaking process by exposing film with objects scattered on top, but even he needed a Patron of the Arts to keep the wheels of cinema turning. A Vicompte here, a Count there, indicate that the 1922 equivalent of the jet set - idle nobles living among the bohemians - could be counted on to front the bills for these movies. Immortalizing the patron or his girlfriend in a major role seemed to happen a lot as well. Some things never change.

The pleasing thing about these films is that all were championed as great art at one time or another (Patron + Adoring Critic = success d'estime) and then for the most part were turned into footnotes in textbooks by Arthur Knight, et. al.. One has to go fishing for the films that excite one's senses, and this collection's wide range gives ample opportunity.

The Films:

Anémic Cinéma France 1926 Marcel Duchamp
This one could be called 'spirals and silly poetry;' it has its own unique logic, even if a lot of the charm is literary (the nonsense text, also spiralled) and not cinematic: "Let us dodge the bruises of Eskimos in exquisite worlds."

Autumn Fire US 1932 Herman G. Weinberg
A 'film poem' to the music of Debussy - for all its imagery, it still uses shots of someone writing words on paper. Like many student films, the pictures are subordinated to the music. This print has one of those aggressive text-heavy Raymond Rohauer copyright notices at the end.

Ballet Méchanique France 1924 Fernand Léger
The most-shown film here (obviously because of the participation of the famous Cubist painter). Lots of pixillated objects, playful animation.

La coquille et le clergyman France 1926 Germaine Dulac
The most elaborate surrealist romp of the bunch, and one written up heavily in the literature. It also has some spicy nudity, virtually guaranteeing it a spot in revivals. A mad cleric is obsessed with a woman, and has a problem reconciling that with his faith; it's all played out in Dali-Buñuelesqe bizarre action. Has a famous scene with a man's head split in two (the image simply tears).

Emak-Bakia France 1928 Man Ray
Like La retour à la raison (below) but longer and less focused. Has one impressive visual - the wild eyes of a girl are actually painted on her eyelids. When she opens them, it's like a reptile flicking off its optical membrane.

L'Étoile de mer France 1928 Man Ray
The great Man Ray gets symbol-happy but still prevails. Starfish are everywhere, and many scenes are filmed through wavy glass that lends an impressionist feel. The distorted exteriors also resemble the 'dream images' in Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World. This is a direct attempt to visualize a poem that achieves its goal. Some non-exploitative scenes have a real sexual charge, just by visual associations.

La glace á trois faces France 1927 Jean Epstein
Jean Epstein was reportedly one of the biggies here but his films don't seem as powerful as some of the others. The film notes relate the complicated story of one man and three women to later narrative structures, but Savant didn't catch on.

H20 US 1929 Ralph Steiner
The best of the 'close-ups of water' films, this one takes a giant leap into art when dark reflections in rippling water suddenly turn into abstract patterns.

The Hearts of Age US 1934 Orson Welles and William Vance
Yes, this is Orson's awkwardly shot teenage home movie. It's mostly an opportunity to see the great filmmaker just starting to play with a movie camera, and using it to display his theatrical makeups.

The Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra 1928 Slavko Vorkapich & Robert Florey
This is a famous 'Hollywood underground movie' Savant was excited to see. A lot of it was literally shot on a dining room table with paper cutouts, and it's wickedly clever. It even has a proto-version of the famous 'happy face' of the late 1970s!

Lot in Sodom US 1933 James Sibley Watson & Melville Webber
A sexually-charged ballet-like film, already reviewed by Savant with Salome. Said to have been shown as a double bill with Un Chien Andalou.

Manhatta US 1921 Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler
A 'city symphony' better than most but still a lot of individually artsy shots of New York ... it's most interesting as a time capsule now. Nice poetic intertitles.

Ménilmontant France 1926 Dimitri Kirsanoff
A weird classic; between this and the Man Rays the collection is a treasure. A fractured impression of a straight story of murder, seduction and misery on the streets of Paris. Nadia Sibirskia (the director's wife, natch) is a sensation who reminds us of Juliette Binoche. Really beautiful, even when the editing is like chop suey.

Les mystéres du chateau du dé France 1929 Man Ray
Man Ray off the deep end, this too-literal Dada exploitation of a fancy Basque hillside mansion gets tiring after a while. Not very mysterious. Perhaps another film idea governed by a wealthy patron.

Regen (Rain) Netherlands 1929 Joris Ivens
'Rain' is all one needs to know - another 'cinema poem' that's really still work in motion, the kind that launched a million student films.

La retour à la raison France 1923 Man Ray
Man Ray is one of the first and perhaps the best talent working here. A few simple abstract shots (some are the ones made without a camera) end with the image of beautiful nude torso turning under patterns of light and shadow. It's the only concrete image in the short film. True pioneering stuff.

Rhythmus 21 Germany 1921 Hans Richter
An early, serious abstract animation composed solely of squares and rectangles that change shape. Another attempt to apply musical principles to screen images.

Romance sentimentale France 1930 Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori V. Alexandrov
Russians in Paris, trees, waves, and trees falling - all built around someone's Russian girlfriend (the producer, I believe) singing a melancholy Russian song. Rodin sculptures are worked in there as well. The print for this one is on the iffy side.

Symphonie diagonale France 1924 Viking Eggeling
A key film attempting to adapt musical 'organization' to moving images, in this case abstract doodle-like animated drawings. Said to have taken three years to make.

Le tempestaire France 1947 Jean Epstein
Another movie mostly about waves breaking in a storm. It's just not as impressive as the glowing remarks of contemporary art critics would have us believe.

Überfall Germany 1928 Ernö Metzner
A real classic, very literal for the most part but soaked with criticism of how society works. Sybille Schmitz (Vampyr) is a featured player. A sequence of a man being knocked unconscious would appear to have inspired various effects in Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet.

Le Vampire France 1939-46 Jean Painlevé
A docu-parody that is said to be a WW2 attack on Nazis by a member of the underground resistance, showing with clinical dispassion a South American vampire bat's attack on a Guinea Pig.

Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast) Germany 1928 Hans Richter
A funny and clever trick film reminding us of Rene Clair silents. Inanimate objects flit about defying their intended uses - hats, ties, etc. We're told that this once had a soundtrack, but that version was destroyed by the Nazis as 'degenerate art.' It's simply fun.

Even -- As You Or I US 1937 Roger Barlow, Harry Ray & Le Roy Robbins
A welcome mood-cutter, this is a parody of surreal short subjects - three loser filmmakers try to win a contest by imitating Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, right down to cutting (dead) animal eyes in half. Some of the gags are lame, but others fit right in with modern warped humor.

Kino Video's DVD of Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s will be a welcome tool in film classes and art classes and a curiosity for those interested in seeing rare titles mentioned in film studies literature. Disc producer Bret Wood presents these 24 short subjects with a layout that is easy to follow - one can watch each disc's titles as a batch, individually, or interpersed with Elliott Stein's concise program notes (the source of some of the information above).

The quality of the titles varies, but I have to say that every one looks better than what I remember from film school. Ménilmontant, for instance, clearly runs at its correct 16 or 18 frames per second; when they showed it at 24fps at UCLA some fast-cut scenes became a blur.

A tremendous help are the scores by five musicians, which vary from moody organ to light experimental orchestral pieces. Music producer Bruce Bennett has helped shape tracks that compliment the films without overwhelming them. Watching these abstract films silent in school was sometimes quite a chore.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: film notes by Elliott Stein
Packaging: 2 discs in double Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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